The National Institutes of Health ponied up $405,000 for a study that found kids are more likely to do chores if they don a cape and pretend to be Batman.
But good luck finding out taxpayers’ contributions to that odd bit of science in the university’s write-up.
Same with the $1.3 million the NIH has spent over the years on a Kentucky university’s research into pigeon gambling, or the $265,000 it paid to another pigeon research project in California that found the birds prefer sunflower seeds to popcorn and peanuts.
Sen. Joni Ernst, in addition to questioning the usefulness of the research projects themselves, said in each case the authors ran afoul of federal law by not disclosing in their writings the full amount of taxpayer support they collected nor how much of their overall budgets came from Uncle Sam.
The Iowa Republican said it’s time to make sure all federal grant projects inform the public how much taxpayer money is being using, and that the agencies that dole out cash follow up, to make sure researchers are complying.
“Taxpayers in Iowa, and across the nation, have a right to know exactly how their hard-earned dollars are being spent,” said Ms. Ernst, who ran for office in 2014 on a promise of making Washington “squeal” over spending cuts.
She’s introduced the COST Act, which would give the White House power to dock grant money from researchers until they comply with the disclosure laws. It would also expand rules that currently apply only to the Health, Labor and Education departments to encompass the entire government.
Republican Sens. Rand Paul and James Lankford have joined her in sponsoring the bill.
They announced their legislation in connection with a new Government Accountability Office report on how the current rules, known as the “Stevens Amendment” for the former senator who first came up with the requirements, work.
GAO said it turns out they aren’t working very well, because the departments don’t bother to police things.
The Labor Department did the best, attempting to monitor some grants, but it couldn’t prove it had a comprehensive effort. The Education Department told GAO it doesn’t bother to monitor, and doubts the law even requires it.
At HHS, some agencies said they feel no obligation, even though the department’s policy clearly says otherwise.
NIH, a part of HHS and the sponsor of much of the pigeon research, said it doesn’t do monitoring, but said it would address any issues brought to its attention.
Anthony Bellotti, president of the White Coat Waste Project, a taxpayer watchdog, said Ms. Ernst should be praised for her new bill.
“If current law was being abided, taxpayers would be shocked to learn how much money the government wastes on boondoggles like putting fish on treadmills, hooking monkeys on cocaine, teaching pigeons to gamble and running mouse fight clubs,” he said.
The Batman study, for example, analyzed “self-distancing,” or taking an outsider’s view of one’s self. The theory was that a child viewing himself as a superhero would help focus on tasks at hand. They concluded that did, in fact, work.
Money from several NIH and National Science Foundation grants was used by the paper’s five authors.
The lead author of that study didn’t respond to an email seeking comment after the GAO report was released Thursday evening, nor did the pigeon-gambling researcher.
But Aaron Blaisdell, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studied pigeon food preferences, said he thought it was “a silly thing to call out.”
In the article he published, he made clear it was done based on NIH grant NS 059076.
But he said he had never heard of the law’s requirement that the full dollar amount and publicly financed share of his research be included in write-ups of the research. He said he reads hundreds of papers a week and they usually report the grant numbers, but never report the total public funding.
Mr. Blaisdell said the main research funded by his grant looks at animal cognition, testing spatial reasoning, learning and memory in pigeons as a way of trying to figure out how brains work in general.
“The idea is not to understand something about human cognition but cognition about vertebrates, or anything with a brain — do brains all work the same way?” he said.
He said the pigeon food study was a side project done with pigeons who weren’t being used at that moment for the main research, because they were trying to figure out what foods motivated the pigeons anyway. He said the food study itself cost perhaps $5 — the price of the feed.
“Often times when politicians do this it’s clear that it’s taken out of context, intentionally it seems like, and spun a certain way to make a naive public outraged,” he said.
The GAO recommended that the agencies already subject to the law right now do a better job of making sure grantees follow the rules.
Both the Labor and Health departments accepted the criticism and said they would work to boost compliance.
The Education Department, though, rejected the GAO recommendations, saying it’s never gotten any complaints. GAO countered that the department doesn’t have a clue what the risks are, and said regardless, it’s still a requirement of the law.